A better way to manage young offenders

Public debate on crime usually goes something like this. Crime rates are soaring. Crime is worse than ever. The criminal justice system is soft on crime. The criminal justice system is loaded in favour of criminals. There should be more police. The police should have more powers. Courts should deliver tougher penalties. Greater retribution against offenders will satisfy victim’s demands.(1)

This should sound familiar. With some rare exceptions, it is the extent of the public debate we have in this state about what to do about crime. It is simple, satisfying and hooks into people’s fear and loathing. It has been used recently to argue a tougher line on young offenders.

The risk with a law and order response is that we may make a far greater crime problem when more young people are caught up in the criminal justice system and live with the label of young offender. Most young people grow out of committing crime and a no- or low-intervention approach is best. (2)

But what is to be done about those who are well and truly caught up in a lifestyle of crime? If I thought that longer sentences and more time in detention would work to reduce serious crime I would support it. But it won’t. (3)  It stops crime only for the period of time the young people are in custody. Imprisonment is no deterrence for repeat offenders and besides, they don’t expect to get caught. Boot camps, wilderness and scared-straight programs also won’t work. And doing nothing won’t work.

Targeted intervention works. Engaging those who are at most risk of re-offending, working with what puts them at most risk and working on what can be changed. This spells individualised plans and programs, delivered in a way that makes sense to the young person. If you think this sounds demanding and costly, it is. But it’s a sneeze next to the costs of a life-time of criminal behaviour.

There are successful proven rehabilitation programs which help repeat young offenders develop their moral understanding, to know what impact their crime has had, to learn to deal with problems differently, and to learn to think about and treat others as they themselves want to be treated. But these on their own also won’t work if the young person is homeless, scared, without money and hanging out with older offenders.

Returning then to the idea of incarceration, it seems an ideal time to work with offenders because, to put it bluntly, they are captive. The problem is that this is not their regular world so on release everything changes. The transition to living within the law in the community is critical to success. Indeed, the more that can be done outside of custody the better, including assisting with the very real problems of unemployment, low income, insecure housing and destructive family relationships.

It’s not easy being a youth justice worker. Everyone working within the youth justice system has to work with dissonant community expectations of punishment and rehabilitation. The problem is that approaches that rely on punishment don’t rehabilitate and instead increase the likelihood of a young person re-offending.

So, keep young people out of prison, wherever possible. Offer judges some real choices in sentencing. If young people are in custody, then use that time to help them learn. When they are released, assist with the problems on the outside.

If you want to read more about young offender programs see the Literature Review or Consultation and Recommendations from our Review of Programmes in Youth Training Centres.


1 Hogg, R and Brown, D (1998) Rethinking Law and Order, Pluto Press: Sydney cited in Cunneen, C and White, R (2002) Juvenile Justice: Youth and Crime in Australia, Oxford University Press: Melbourne

2 In this letter I am writing about serious and repeat offending. We do pretty well in this state with the one-off incidents of breaking the law through diversion strategies such as police cautions. One in five young people will face law enforcers within a formal setting and all but a few will not repeat the experience.

3 See, for example, Weatherburn, D, Vignaendra, S and McGrath, A (2009) The specific deterrent effect of custodial penalties on juvenile reoffending, Australian Institute of Criminology, report no 33 www.aic.gov.au

Magill Youth Training Centre

The axing of a new youth detention facility in the State Budget had condemned hundreds of young South Australians each year, some as young as 10, to spend their days in the grim decrepit confines of Magill Youth Training Centre.

Many will spend their nights on a mattress on a single wooden bunk in a 2m x 3m cell off a narrow corridor, unrelieved by a picture on the wall or a desk or a chair.

The toilets are down another corridor. Taps leak, tiles are broken and the cut-off doors afford no privacy. The windows are rendered opaque by grime, thick bars and wire mesh.

This tired and threadbare institution sabotages the efforts of staff to provide a safe and positive environment. It sends the clear message to staff and young residents alike that they are worthy of nothing better, seriously undermining the work of rehabilitation.

This decision is poor economics. For each of these young people we allow to graduate into a life of crime the cost to policing, the justice system and prisons is many times over the cost of rehabilitation.

It leaves South Australians in breach of international rules to provide ‘facilities and services that meet all the requirements of health and human dignity’ for juvenile offenders.

But most of all it is profoundly unkind and uncaring to some of our most vulnerable young people. I challenge any Minister responsible for this budget to spend an hour or two with the children in Magill and not feel deeply ashamed.

Pam Simmons


Published in The Advertiser 8 June 2009.

Safe Keeping Orders in South Australia

As a result of growing interest and support for introducing safe keeping provisions in South Australia the Guardian for Children and Young People wants to understand better the views, risks and benefits of safe keeping for young people at risk.  In addition, the Minister for Families and Communities has recently requested the Guardian provide advice in relation to the recommendation made in the Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry final report that a secure therapeutic facility be established in South Australia.

This discussion paper has been prepared to elicit views on whether there is a need for safe keeping provisions, the concerns and risks in instituting safe keeping provisions and what can be done to address those risks. The responses will inform the policy advice the Guardian provides to the Minister and the Guardian’s position in relation to this matter.

A PDF file of the discussion paper Safe Keeping Orders can be downloaded.

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Serious repeat young offenders

Among other statutory functions the Guardian for Children and Young People acts as an advocate for the interests of children under the guardianship, or in the custody, of the Minister for Families and Communities.  This includes young people in the secure care centres.  It is in this capacity that the following submission is made.

This submission is prepared on the basis of the Office’s experience in investigating individual matters, talking with experts in the area of youth justice, and our knowledge of policies and practice in Families SA.

You can download a PDF file of Serious Repeat Young Offenders .